In the past year, a decade-long but modest retreat of democracy around the globe has mutated into something much more blatant, volatile, and dangerous. The ill-fated July coup attempt in Turkey has empowered President Erdogan to accelerate his transformation of the country from a flawed democracy into a quasi-authoritarian regime. The Thai military has recently imposed a patently undemocratic constitution on the country’s weary public. Under the Philippines’ new president, Rodrigo Duterte, more than 3,600 people suspected of drug trafficking have been gunned down without due process by state and vigilante enforcers.
The daughter of Peru’s former dictator, Alberto Fujimori, was almost elected president this year. South Africa’s ruling party has squandered Nelson Mandela’s legacy under the venal presidency of Jacob Zuma. Ghana is heading into a presidential election that could leave it mired in bitter disputes over electoral misconduct. And a constellation of illiberal, nativist, and populist political forces are gaining ground even in Europe — with enthusiastic support from Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who has invested heavily in subverting Western democracy through disinformation, digital warfare, and financial support for sympathetic political forces.
Now, global confidence in democracy and freedom as universal values is in sharp retreat. We are on the precipice of what the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington would term a “third reverse wave” of democratic failures which could erase decades of promising gains.
The state of affairs in Washington is no more encouraging. The example of the United States — still the world’s only superpower — has been uniquely important to the expansion of democracy in the world. But over the past decade in particular, American democracy has gone from being a model and inspiration — a “shining city on a hill” — to an illustration of dysfunction.
Increasingly, even America’s admirers have been disheartened by the polarization, gridlock, coarseness, and money politics that have alienated so many American voters. And this year’s presidential race has been dominated not by the normal heated rhetoric and divergent platforms of Republicans and Democrats but by personal scandals, historic levels of distrust, and — in the case of Donald Trump — a level of vulgarity and contempt for basic democratic norms that is without precedent in modern American history.
What are others around the world to glean about the virtues of democracy from the United States when the Republican nominee for president vows to jail his Democratic opponent, encourages his supporters to chant “lock her up,” and suggests that gun owners take matters into their own hands to stop her from challenging their interpretation of the Second Amendment? Disturbingly, one of Trump’s cruder proponents, Maine Governor Paul LePage, has celebrated the Republican candidate’s anti-democratic tendencies as a virtue: “We need a Donald Trump to show some authoritarian power in our country and bring back the rule of law,” he said in a recent radio interview.
This state of affairs is one reason it’s hard to overstate the importance of the 2016 presidential election — not just for the United States but for the whole world. And it’s no coincidence that the second-most important election on Nov. 8 will be in LePage’s own state of Maine. The vote I have in mind will not decide who controls the U.S. Senate, since neither of the state’s two senators is on the ballot this year. Instead, the issue at stake in Question 5 (a citizen-initiated referendum) is whether Maine will adopt a system called ranked-choice voting (RCV) in all its elections. If they approve the measure, Maine voters will have a unique opportunity to showcase the transformative potential of U.S. democracy and to send a much-needed signal for reform at a crucial moment.
In RCV, voters select not just one candidate, but a list of candidates in order of preference. If no candidate gets a majority of first-preference votes when tabulating the results, the least popular candidate is eliminated and the second-preference votes of his or her supporters are redistributed to the other candidates. The process continues until someone gets a majority.
The ability to rank all the candidates running for office, rather than voting for only one, is intrinsically more democratic.
The ability to rank all the candidates running for office, rather than voting for only one, is intrinsically more democratic. But, because it forces candidates to try to appeal to a broader cross-section of the public, RCV also makes it much more likely that the winner will be open to moderation, compromise, and building governing coalitions. LePage himself was first elected in 2010 in a bruising three-way contest with only 37 percent of the vote. Under RCV, he would have been forced to take a more moderate line — or else he would have been defeated in the “instant run-off” (another name for the system).
If more U.S. legislators were elected through RCV, this could help to reduce gridlock and get legislation moving again. It would likely also make for better campaigns that are less mired in the politics of personal destruction, since a multi-candidate race raises the risks of going brutally and personally negative. As Howard Dean recently observed in an article endorsing the RCV system, “needing to reach out to more voters leads candidates to reduce personal attacks and govern more inclusively.”
RCV would also stimulate greater political choice and competition, and probably greater voter participation as well. This system solves the well-known “spoiler problem” in American democracy — the perception that third-party and independent candidates are untenable because voting for them “wastes” a vote that could have gone to one of the major parties. Under RCV, voters who don’t like the established party choices can vote their conscience with a first preference, and rank their “less bad” option second. As a result, more independents — who tend to shy away from running because they don’t want to be spoilers — will come forward and present their case. And smaller parties, including the Greens and Libertarians, will have a fairer shot at being heard.
RCV is gathering interest and support across the country. It’s already used in a number of cities, including Oakland, San Francisco, and Portland, Maine. There is interest in other states as well. One advantage of the American federal system is that crucial political reforms can take place in one state first and then spread to others if they work. Maine’s vote on Question 5 could trigger a wave of reform momentum in other states. And the resulting reinvigoration of American democracy could once again make the country an example that inspires admiration — and emulation — around the world.